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Hassan Rouhani, 7th President of Iran


Since Hassan Rouhani became Iran’s president, he has been on a charm offensive designed to persuade the international community that the dark days of confrontational rhetoric and policies from his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are over. Western leaders have so far shown a propensity to believe him. Since a nuclear interim deal was signed in Geneva last November, world leaders and business delegations have been flocking to Iran to encourage what they see as Rouhani’s new course — most recently, Baroness Ashton, the EU’s top foreign policy official and the chief negotiator for P5+1 (the five permanent members of the Security Council, US, Russia, China, UK and France plus Germany) in the talks over Iran’s nuclear programme.

It is easy to see why everyone views Rouhani’s new administration as a genuine turn of the page. Compared to his predecessor, Rouhani comes across as soft-spoken, sophisticated and elegant. His ministerial appointees all have impressive pedigrees — PhDs from US universities, a good command of English and stylish suits.

Yet behind the veil of this new-found bonhomie, his line-up of ministerial appointments and government companies’ management is filled with loyal servants of the Islamic Revolution who toppled the Shah in their twenties, helped build the Islamic Republic in their thirties, ran government companies and held ministerial positions in their forties, took a break in their fifties when Ahmadinejad ran the country, and are now back, mostly in those same positions, in their sixties.

This is hardly the stuff of change. If anything, Rouhani has brought back to power the ultimate regime insiders, whose main goal is to undo Ahmadinejad’s eight years in office and restore Iran’s ancien régime, not deal it a final blow. Their smiles aim to relieve international economic pressure, not relinquish Iran’s nuclear ambitions. They want to save the Islamic Revolution, not reform it. Their feuds over power and charges of corruption against holdovers from the previous administration are a turf war between rival factions of the same power structure, not an effort to change course. They are a throwback to the time of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, presidents under whom Rouhani himself loyally served. So are the Ahmadinejad appointees who, for now, remain in their jobs.

Take Rouhani’s first vice-president, Eshagh Jahangiri. Despite his reformist credentials — he served in Khatami’s cabinet as minister of industry — he is a longtime associate of Rafsanjani, the man credited as the father of Iran’s nuclear programme.

The other vice-president, Mohammad Shariatmadari, is par for the course. He was minister of commerce under Khatami at a time of tentative economic liberalisation. But he is also a close associate of Ayatollah Mohammad Reyshahri — Iran’s much-feared first minister of intelligence who was for many years the head of a religious foundation and its sprawling economic empire fronted by the Rey Investment Company, a target of US sanctions. Shariatmadari’s association with Reyshahri goes back to the early days of the Iranian revolution, when he took an active part in the establishment of the ministry of intelligence. This closeness came with financial benefits — Shariatmadari has been doing business with other Rey Investment officials in Germany on the side.
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